It's about time someone staged a play that revealed critics for what they truly are: sexy.
Granted, the critic in Sorry Fugu, the first of two short Food Stories, a Word For Word production now at Z Space, isn't a theater critic—unless you consider the foodie scene a theater of its own. For Willa Frank (Molly Benson), the play's delicate, luscious-lipped food critic, it's a theater of cruelty. She plays the villain, her weapons "the sting of her adjectives and the thrust of her metaphors." She even has a sidekick, who's known only as The Palate (Gendall Hernandez). And D'Angelo (Soren Oliver), an Italian chef who has to do breathing exercises before he can read her trenchant reviews, knows he's her next victim.
You've been to a restaurant like D'Angelo's before. With its aquamarine neon sign and fake palm trees (by set designer Mikiko Uesugi), it would be right at home in Goodfellas, probably serving the very pasta fazool captured in Dean Martin's "That's Amore." (Caela Fujii's 300+ food props vividly conjure a kitchen busily over-boiling piles of noodles.) Even D'Angelo's girlfriend Marie — of course that's her name — played by Delia MacDougall, can't compliment his cooking with any conviction.
Though determined to overcome his mediocrity, D'Angelo can't win with nouveau cuisine or fusion genres. Instead, he must find the critic's vulnerability, which turns out to complement his: He fears a negative review; she fears mistakes. "I don't trust my own taste," she at one point confesses. "To like something, to really come out and say so, is to take a terrible risk. I mean, what if I'm wrong? What if it's no good?"
Director John Fisher makes this pair of weaknesses into a delicious pas de deux. D'Angelo moves to her "as if they were dancing," "purrs" sweet nothings to abate her feminine apprehensions, and pops decadent morsels into her waiting mouth with his own two fingers.
The buildup to that preposterous and wonderful climax takes a little too long. Word For Word is dedicated to making theater out of literature, and in its narration Sorry Fugu retains much of the prose of its source, a celebrated T.C. Boyle story. When D'Angelo folds his newspaper "as he might have folded the sheet over the other chef's body," he also tells us so, essentially speaking his own stage directions.
But those lines also allow the ensemble to indulge characters' emotions with melodramatic abandon, a hilarious contrast with, let's face it, the true insignificance of reviews. Leonora (Patricia Silver), another food critic, "finds evidence of divine intervention in the folds of a grape leaf." Fulgencio (Hernandez), the non-English-speaking dishwasher, "wields the nozzle of his super-sprayer as if in a dream." Boyle's language also perfectly captures the breathy, overwrought menu descriptions. The phrase "an absolutely devastating meadowlark marinated in shallots and mint" takes characters on a sensuous journey in its own right.
Fisher's jokey staging lends just the right pitch to the proceedings. The server Eduardo (a fabulous Rudy Guerrero) opens a ketchup bottle as though it's a bottle of wine; the kitchen staff picks up and moves a set piece that's inconveniently angled for their spying.
Alice McDermott's Enough, the second one-act on the bill, is as earnest and life-affirming as Boyle's is tongue-in-cheek. The play chronicles a woman's lifetime of indulgence in sex and ice cream after the spectacular failure of her austere Catholic upbringing. Played at different stages of her life by MacDougall and Silver, she is always either spreading her legs or licking her spoon. And she doesn't just lick; she makes "long strokes of tongue from gold-edged rim to gold-edged rim." McDermott's message, that "pleasure is pleasure," is a simple one, and it's didactically delivered to the audience. But that makes for an effective contrast with the first piece, sending you out into the night ready to share what you love about food unburdened by hangups. Taken together, the two plays will sate most appetites — although you might find yourself craving a pint-sized carton of your own afterward.